I was stuck working late in my West Village office one snowy January night when two phone calls came in, both from lifelong friends with the happy news of their first pregnancies. I was alone in a cubicle, holding a cup of bad office coffee, and I felt like a train station the moment the train departs—exhaled.
I was 30. I wanted to want a baby. More precisely, I wanted to want anything as much as my friends wanted their babies. In truth, when babies cried, I felt nothing. If they giggled I might smile, but with nowhere near the wattage I afforded to even the ugliest dog. I had reached a pinnacle moment of society’s narrative about women: well-employed, well-married, no longer exactly young. I knew what desire was; I just didn’t have it toward babies. But everywhere around me, the babies were on their way.
I rose from my desk after the second call, stretched, and walked to the picture windows in the office kitchen. I watched the blurred lights from the high rises along the Hudson. A New York City ice rain was falling, the kind that leaves you gasping when it hits the neck between your scarf and hat. The green gleam of the Statue of Liberty shone through the rain, the dark bay pooling under her light.
I had promised to work late, but as I stood at the window I decided I didn’t want to. So I went to the gym instead.
How often do we do this—pay attention to what we actually want? And then simply do that thing instead of its opposite? There are people who excel at doing what they want, who cultivate an ability to listen to their desires and then take appropriate action. I was not one of those people. I was a creature of the “should” persuasion. I should work late, even if my shoulders are knotted and I am miserable at my computer. I should get to bed at a reasonable hour, not read poetry until 3 a.m. near a drafty window, buried happily under three blankets. I should pursue a practical, reasonable career instead of trying to be a writer. Instead of art. I should eat salads, stretch, floss. Send thank you notes, too.
At the gym I’d planned to jog slowly on the treadmill for just a few minutes, but when I hit the ten-minute mark I started all-out running. It felt good. I was weary and lost, and my legs wanted to run, so I let them. I ran three miles, a distance I’d never gone before. I ran so hard I almost cried, my side cramping, my body dripping.
And then I really was crying, openly weeping on the treadmill—elated.
I was 21 years old when I had my first spinal surgery. Some people develop a bad back in frumpy middle age but I’d sprouted mine as a pre-teen, degenerative discs collapsing down my spine like a broken ladder. In the recovery room, I was told by a neurosurgeon with kind eyes and a Santa Claus demeanor: no running. No roller coasters or long car rides. Don’t carry anything heavier than a gallon of milk. Be careful. You’ll have this problem for the rest of your life.
I nodded, young and terrorized. I moved from my college apartment back to my childhood home to recover. For my first post-surgical outing, my mother drove me through the suburbs of central New Jersey, down Durham Avenue from Edison to South Plainfield, past the condos and the strip malls and the bustling gardening centers set up in asphalt parking lots. We landed at Kohls.
I hated Kohls. Its organized piles of affordable shoes and reasonably patterned dinnerware brought forth a strange despair on a good day, and this was not a good day. I wandered through the desolate aisles in sweatpants and a tattered college t-shirt, pale and dark-eyed under snapping fluorescent lights. The walk back across the parking lot felt like crossing the moon, and by the time I slipped into the passenger seat I was silently crying. My mother took me home without saying a word. She tucked me into my childhood bed. She brought me water. She kissed me goodnight. I thought I would never feel strong again.
“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick,” Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as a Metaphor. “Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
I knew I wasn’t actually sick. A degenerative spine didn’t make me an invalid, nor would a bad knee, a bum shoulder. These are mechanical failures. These things are not cancer. And yet it was my first experience with genuine pain or physical helplessness. I had nerve damage in my feet. I’d spent my final months of college in a nauseated Vicodin haze. I understood for the first time how delicate, how devastating, lies the border between the healthy and the sick. I became afraid.
I spent the rest of my 20s in slow motion. I learned to make safe choices, to be inactive, to be tentative. And although I took care of my fragile, asshole spine, played by the rules, did everything I’d been told that I should, when I was 28 it happened again.
Again, that liquid, unbearable pain. Again, emergency surgery. Again, the kindly doctor in the recovery room.
“We meet again,” he said, still jolly.
“Lucky us,” I said, trying not to throw up on him.
He sat beside me, held my hand, and said the third time would be much worse. A spinal fusion was my only remaining option, which would limit my mobility permanently and perhaps not resolve the pain. I would have to be even more careful. I slipped in and out of morphine dreams as he spoke. I watched my legs jerk and twitch under the blankets, feeling like a marionette—the nerves of my spinal column so inflamed they sparked like a live wire, sending bad electricity down my limbs. The morphine didn’t cut it, but Dilaudid did, a level-up opioid I hadn’t known existed. When relief arrived, so cool and silent, I sank into it. I imagined myself underwater: graceful, weightless. Sliding seamlessly through the blue dark.
I recovered again, but more slowly this time. When I imagined my future, I pictured a gradual decay of health, a descent into wheelchairs and nerve damage and narcotics. I started physical therapy, and when the pain persisted, I was sent to pain management, a branch of medicine my late-20s self was horrified to learn existed. I developed near-debilitating anxiety. A doctor’s gentle touch on my lower back during a routine visit left me gasping, dissolving on the examining table like a panicky toddler.
Two months after my second surgery, which had been deemed successful, I attended a wedding, during which I danced. For exactly three songs. I woke the next morning locked in the fetal position in a hotel bed. I shook my husband awake and asked him for a balled-up pair of socks. He looked on in consternation as I shoved them into my mouth, bit hard, and inched sideways out of bed. I landed on the carpet on my hands and knees, grunting through cotton, primal with pain. A half-hour later the Vicodin kicked in. I spent the rest of the day pain-free but sweating through nausea, my face pressed to the cold tiles of the bathroom floor.
My mother came to help. When the storm passed, I curled up in bed, spent, and said, “If I have to live like this forever-”
“You’ll kill yourself. I know.” She kissed the top of my head and switched the TV on. Unreasonably comforted, I slept.
In time, I recovered again. I kept plodding ahead, collecting birthdays. I lived a flat-toned, careful life. Some good things had happened along the way in my 20s, of course. I had married a man I loved—the helpful sock-holder—and gotten a decent job. And yet I felt older than my years, joyless and stagnant, and my days had taken on a slogging quality. I heaved myself out of bed every morning. Convinced myself into the shower. Shit-talked my body into its clothes, its shoes, out the door.
The summer I turned 30, when all those babies started popping up from the ether, a non-parent friend invited me on a safari. A real safari, in the actual Serengeti, in a rickety off-road 4-by-4, because that’s how that’s done. To join would entail four days of bumping and jostling over dirt roads, in the middle of the African plains, where no one could fish me out if something went wrong.
I knew I should not do this. It was financially extravagant and medically risky. A responsible person would have said no, but I found myself lying awake at night, tortured with indecision, staring at the streetlight out my window. One night, rationalizing it out in the dark, I realized I couldn’t bear to become a person who didn’t go to Africa. I said yes instead. And felt an instant rush of relief.
That first day, in the jostling, I was terrified. I gripped my seat so tightly, trying not to bounce, that my palms cramped. A friend held up a full handle of whiskey and I grabbed it with both hands, laughing, the glass clanging against my teeth. That first night in the Serengeti I slept slathered in DEET under white clouds of mosquito netting, my pants tucked into my socks so ants couldn’t crawl in. At sunrise, just outside our cabins, a hyena loped by. The blister-bright African sun rose over a horizon of scrub brush and brown earth, a landscape so stark and so wide I could see the curvature of the Earth, the land drifting away just like an ocean. At breakfast, my friends and I sat together in an open-air lodge with cool tiled floors while servals, wild African cats that look like tiny cheetahs, clambered overhead on exposed wooden beams. The morning air was spicy, like campfire and curry. As we poked with furrowed brows at unidentifiable fruit, a flock of blazing green birds arrived and splashed around in a dark, stone-lined pond. They were delicate and songful and gloriously bright. Right then an old friend leaned over the breakfast table and said, “They’re called lovebirds,” and I felt a full-bodied flood of joy, and I knew, I knew, for once in my life I had done something right.
I could write thousands of words about what specifically went wrong with my spine when I was young; about how in being so careful, in staying so still, I had only amplified the stiffness that was part of my problem in the first place. But all that really matters is this: I did things on that trip that should have hurt me, things I’d spent a decade trying not to do, and I walked away just fine. Better, in fact.
I began treating my body differently. I hired a personal trainer—another extravagance—to learn about strength training, something I’d always longed to try. I started from scratch and, by the end of that summer, imagined myself a superhero under a barbell. One day, feeling strong, I decided I wanted to run after all. I started small and safe on a treadmill, jogging for one minute at a time—literally sixty seconds, terrified of injury—but minute led to minute, then mile to mile, small braveries to other small braveries. My first race came just nine months later, a ten-miler, and when I crossed the finish line I felt as light and lean as a bird. I wept on the way home, shaking with exhaustion as I drove up the New Jersey Turnpike, windows down and wind in my sweaty hair while I crammed bananas into my mouth.
At one point I pulled over to let the crying jags shudder through me. I was 32 years old and athletic for the first time in my life. I’d spent my entire youth feeling awkward, sitting out gym class alone on the bleachers. Longing for an athleticism or grace I thought I couldn’t have, so I’d never before bothered to try. I wanted to feel victorious, and I did, but I was sorrowful too. I wondered how many other moments of my own life I’d missed, out of caution or practicality. My car shook on the side of the highway as the trucks blasted by. I ran my hands along my thigh muscles through my running pants. They were so fucking beautiful. It had taken me so long to find them.
These days it’s been years since I’ve had an episode of acute pain, but I live with what I call a “body headache” in which my hips ache and my back creaks. I have no feeling in two toes of my left foot. On bad days a crackling electricity runs down the outside of my left calf. When I was 29 and it wouldn’t stop firing, I had a nerve conduction study to test my legs for nerve damage. A very tough friend of mine had had this test done once. “It’s the most painful thing that’s ever happened to me,” he’d said solemnly. I lay on a cold metal table in a hospital gown and was told to relax, then injected with tiny needles that sent electrical currents pulsing through my limbs to check for a response.
As I lay there like Frankenstein’s creature, legs firing away, I looked out the filthy window at New York’s humid skies and thought, well this is unpleasant, but I’ve felt worse, and then I felt ferociously strong. I walked back to my train the long way through Times Square, my legs moving freely beneath me, sore and twitchy but working fine. Legs like little spark plugs. Legs like a marionette, flashing under a pretty dress. When I was a teenager my father died of cancer, and his legs rotted with gangrene while he was in hospice. A few years later his brother, my beloved uncle, lost a leg to diabetes, then died a slow and painful death as well. My mother’s legs are lined with varicose veins and she thinks they are ugly but all I see are beautiful tracks of blood and movement; life pulsing just under her skin.
At the base of my back are two vertical scars. I call them my railroad tracks. I’d like to tattoo a real railroad track over them someday. I’d like to turn these scars into symbols of motion. If I could time-travel, I’d find high school April and tell her this: someday, your skin will be hot with sunlight and sweat, then cooled by a sudden breeze, and you’ll walk up the driveway after a run as the sun streaks in the distance and maybe a dog barks, and your legs will ache from exertion, not flawed skeletal dynamics, not bad anatomy, and inside you’ll strip out of your sweat-drenched clothes, step into your clean shower, and let the warmth slide down your shoulders. You’ll feel the exquisite pleasure of soap on a washcloth, let it slide over your full breasts and soft stomach and the curves of your slightly-too-ample hips, and they will not be perfect, not one inch of you has ever been, or will ever be, perfect, and yet the pride will be astonishing: to be there at all, deep in your 30s, a woman for once in full possession of her body instead of bullied by it.
You will run your fingers over your railroad tracks. You’ll think about your missing discs, your lack of mechanical cushion. You will be grateful for your hipbones, your collarbone, for the joint-and-socket way you click together. Like lines of type on a page.
I’m in the final stretch of my 30s now. My four-year-old will wake soon and demand the full attention of my body: my neck to snuggle in, my hands to offer up her pink cup of milk and to cook her perfectly buttered waffles. Her eyes are blue and endless and her cries and her laugh both rise from her gut, blood-filled and strong. She teaches me about trusting desire every day. Announcing what she wants. Insisting upon it. She hasn’t yet learned any other way of being. I hope she never will.
I didn’t feel a speck of maternal desire until north of my 35th birthday, and even then it was just a low-light flicker, unsteady, unsure. But one day I’d spotted a small girl, perhaps four years old, walking ahead of me on a train platform. Her hair was long and dark, and out of nowhere I wanted, fiercely, to smooth her ponytail. And then I started seeing ponytailed girls everywhere, dozens of them, with hopeful eyes and upturned noses and hands that were reaching, always reaching, for their mothers.
It wasn’t much, of course. Certainly not enough to bet a life on. And yet.
The answers to my happiness had been with me the whole time, pulsing away under my skin. It was my feet that walked me into every bookstore of my life, my tight muscles that unfurled behind the shield of a novel. It was my whole body thrumming, electric with joy, when I walked onto a snow-frosted Vermont campus at age 32 to begin a creative writing program. It was my legs that burst into a run on that treadmill, proving that I was capable of more than I had become. And it was my hands that, in time, itched to smooth a little girl’s hair. We all understand what desire is, though we’ve been trained to associate the word with sex instead of with the body at large. But there is a silent conversation happening within our bodies every day, buried under the ordinary noise of our lives. Like the distant freight train I’ve heard without noticing every single night of my city-adjacent life. It’s a lullaby soundtrack, ever-present at the pitch-bottom of sleep. Calling me to wake up, to pay attention. To run.